Culture on Display

While conducting some research in visual art theory, I came across an article that did not seem related to this blog, at first. It is an essay by Inderpal Grewal, “Constructing National Subjects,” from Lisa Bloom‘s With Other Eyes: Looking at Race and Gender in Visual Culture, and it discusses nineteenth century guidebooks to the British Museum.

Guidebooks for the British Museum do not appear related to stories of saltwater and migration, but they are related to the history of colonialism, how people obtain knowledge, and how knowledge is disseminated.

The nineteenth century was the age of industry and discovery, and people were making advances in science, technology, and the arts. Transportation improved, and explorers, commodities, and cultures were being transported around the world. If people could not travel to see other countries, they could see representations of those other countries in museums and exhibitions.

Everyone was intrigued by curiosities from different cultures and would flock to exhibitions (like the Crystal Palace) to see small pieces of an unknown land. In order to understand the strange and unusual, the guidebooks would provide information on what people were seeing in these exhibitions.

However, these little pieces of culture from faraway lands were analyzed within the historical and cultural context of England’s history, and the practices of museums and exhibitions (Grewal, 1999: 46). These little curiosities, analyzed by people in the museums, were the only representations the public would have with other cultures.

Those responsible for writing the guidebooks would praise antiquities from cultures they wished to emulate, such as ancient Greece. They would describe Greek art as “validating and inscribing English values,” as “pure” or “moral,” while Egyptian art was considered “erotic,” “sexual,” and “animalistic,” (Grewal, 1999: 46-47).

While providing analysis of the curiosities, the guidebooks would also relate them to the historical implications of discovery. Regardless of moral or cultural representation, each artifact would be associated with the explorers or excavators who brought back the antiquities for the Empire. Such as the Elgin marbles.

The Elgin Marbles are a collection of sculptures from Greece that were remove from the Parthenon and brought to England. There is a debate over Elgin’s permit that ‘allowed’ him to remove the sculptures, but the guidebooks described the removal as an act of heroism. They claim that Elgin removed them so England would have classical sculptures to help teach students, and to rescue the marbles from being destroyed by Turkish rebels (Grewal, 1999: 48). This kind of description was used to incite national pride for those who discovered new cultures, and brought things back for viewing and safe-keeping.

The practices and interpretations in museums and exhibitions were to incite feelings of nationalism (Grewal, 1999: 49) in the people of England. They used artifacts and collections to influence public opinion of colonialism, otherness, and patriotism.

In 1800 there were less than a dozen museums, by 1887 there were at least 240 (Grewal, 1999: 49). They spread information on other peoples, other countries, and other cultures from their own interpretation of them. Through the eyes of the colonizer, not the colonized.

“A visit to the museum was like a guided journey to foreign lands. Here lay the ivories from many Dark places; the spoils of travel, like the novel, the travelogue, narrativized the Other” (Grewal, 1999: 55).

The British museum guidebooks demonstrated what they thought should be valued, and what needed order, discipline, civility. They also demonstrated how people received information about other cultures, people, and places, and that information would influence public opinion. When we look at how general history textbooks are organized for elementary and high school students, or textbook for first year university students, we still see the influence of what was valued in the nineteenth century.

We study the classics first, ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, Europe, and Britain, and then we see other cultures.

Grewal, Inderpal. “Constructing National Subjects: The British Museum and Its Guidebooks” in With Other Eyes: Looking at Race and Gender in Visual Culture. Edited by Lisa Bloom. Minneapolis MN: University of Minnesota, 1999. 44-55.

© Tanya Nielsen (, 2016




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